Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Iain Henderson faces sleepless night with Lions Test dream alive

 

By Jonathan Bradley

With Wellington's "Cake Tin" stadium also doubling up as an international cricket venue, there was plenty of space on the sidelines for television cameras to zoom in on Iain Henderson's face yesterday as he sat solemnly in the naughty chair during the British and Irish Lions' draw with the Hurricanes.

The Ulster lock had been binned in the 65th minute after a lengthy consultation between referee and TMO.

The timing of the yellow card was most unfortunate - the hosts erased a 14-point deficit during the fateful 10 minutes to knot the score at 31 points apiece - but even more so given that the 25-year-old had been the outstanding player on the park.

Like the majority of his team-mates, Henderson's first outing of this tour was somewhat listless, but since then he has rolled up his sleeves, shaken off that early jet lag and excelled.

Starting in the defeat against the Highlanders, his performance was notable for its intensity, and it was more of the same off the bench against the Crusaders when he added some big carries.

Carrying that momentum into last week's win over the Chiefs, he and Courtney Lawes were the unlucky pair to be left out of the first Test squad thanks to the presence of George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje.

But with both Kruis and Jones relatively poor against the All Blacks, changes in the engine room are expected for the re-match this Saturday.

And that much was clear early on yesterday as Henderson and Lawes stood head and shoulders above the rest knowing there was a Test place on the line.

The Ulsterman was fantastic in the loose with some bulldozing carries and ferocious counter-rucking, even if he will regret overstepping the mark on that one fateful occasion.

There was even a scoring pass after he showed good hands, and even more crucially strong decision-making, to set George North away under the posts.

It was in the 54th minute, though, that Henderson probably realised he, somehow, hadn't done enough.

Just as the TMO adjudged that he'd been stopped inches short of the line in a bid to score the try his performance deserved, it was Lawes and not Henderson called ashore, a fairly clear indication that it was the England and Northampton man still foremost in coach Warren Gatland's thoughts.

And that was before the most ill-timed of yellow cards, an offence that seemed set to be punished only by a penalty before Romain Poite was afforded another look.

While saying afterwards that Henderson's performance had given him "food for thought", Gatland also cited the yellow card, rather than his own refusal to use the 'Geography Six' off the bench when legs were flagging, as the turning point in a victory surrendered.

Still, given the form he has displayed throughout this tour from not quite start to finish, Henderson will be considered hugely unfortunate if he doesn't return to these shores a Test Lion.

Key for Ulster will be how he comes back.

The former Queen's man had a similar string of 'breakout' performances at the 2015 World Cup for Ireland, causing many to peg him as Paul O'Connell's long-term successor.

Injuries, however, have meant it has been a fight with Donnacha Ryan for a starting spot ever since, but it would be a huge boost to Les Kiss and all at Kingspan Stadium if he brings such form home and can carry it into next season.

For now though, even for a man with a famed passion for the occasional nap, it could be a sleepless night ahead of tomorrow's team selection.

Belfast Telegraph

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